IJ Beats Back Big Easy Book Ban—For Now
First Amendment and Economic Liberty Challenge Puts Literary Entrepreneurs in Business
By Lisa Knepper
“We’re not attempting to cause any trouble or get anything special from the government,” declared 25-year-old Jordan Blanton. “We just want to earn an honest living sharing our love of books.”
Such a simple statement of entrepreneurial spirit resonates with most Americans—except, apparently, the bureaucrats in the City of New Orleans’ Department of Finance, whose arbitrary and rigid permitting system prohibits Jordan and fellow New York University graduate Josh Wexler from vending books on any Big Easy street.
Jordan, a New Orleans native, and Josh moved to the city in August 2001 after working in used bookstores in New York City. They dream of opening their own neighborhood bookstore in New Orleans, and starting a sidewalk stand like those in the Big Apple as their first step. They have the table, the books and a great deal of passion—but despite a year-and-a-half of phone calls and visits to City Hall, they couldn’t get the government’s permission to start their business.
In New Orleans, vendors must have a permit for sidewalk sales, but, almost as soon as they were informed of this fact by New Orleans officials, they were also informed that no permit exists for book vending. (Evidently, “Catch-22” is not just a book title to these public servants; it is a way of life.) Josh and Jordan could get permits to vend razor blades, pencils or shoelaces, but not books or the blank journals, which Jordan crafts from old book bindings.
In other words, the home city of Tennessee Williams and other literary giants flatly prohibits selling their books—or any others—on the street. In fact, vending without a license in New Orleans is a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to five months in jail.
IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner is fighting New Orleans’ book-vending ban, challenging the law in federal court as an unconstitutional violation of Jordan and Josh’s rights to free speech and economic liberty. IJ has already secured a temporary restraining order against the City, putting the entrepreneurs on the street and in business at last.
For now, Jordan and Josh are safe, but the legal battle to secure their right to earn an honest living continues. As Dana explained, “The ramifications of this lawsuit extend far beyond New Orleans. Hundreds of cities limit street vending of books and other goods in all kinds of irrational ways—allowing some businesses and arbitrarily excluding other perfectly harmless ones. Cities should focus on simple vending rules to protect health, safety and traffic flow, rather than imposing whatever limits and costs happen to strike official fancy.”
Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.